Monday, May 21, 2012

Wishing, and hoping... for an unlikely moratorium

After all the time I've spent monitoring and reporting on this beat, I can't help but continue to be surprised by how every community re-invents the wheel when it comes to the question of school closures.
Here's an example (just one) from Niagara Region, where an MPP is calling for yet another moratorium on school closures. I also look at sites such as the Peterborough-based Save Local Schools and wonder. A May 12, supposedly provincewide rally against the existing school-closure process in this province saw a grand total of eight communities participate (Cambridge, Cobourg, Hamilton, Kingston, Norwood, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury and Welland), with only six school districts therein.
Missing?
Ottawa, where the question of closing under-capacity schools in the city's urban core and the constant demand for more accommodation in the exurbs has yet to be comprehensively addressed, particularly within the public school board.
Toronto, which continues to have the highest vacancy rate in the province but has kept avoiding the massive slate of school closures and consolidations for a variety of reasons.
Anywhere further north than Sudbury-- because many of these boards have already done several rounds of closures and consolidations and people are living with the consequences of that time. As they are in rural eastern Ontario (Upper Canada DSB, I'm looking at you) as well as comprehensive swaths of midwestern and southwestern Ontario.
Many of their points have merit-- district school boards are not as small as the township and city -- or the county -- boards they replaced. The review process isn't an appeal and no one in government (or out of it) seems to be willing to strip a district school board of one of the few responsibilities that still lies entirely within its domain-- pupil accommodation. Overwhelmingly, however, this opposition is rooted in the status quo, NIMBYism and the reluctance to accept any change.
This is not going away. There will be no moratorium. The harsh reality is that there are plenty of schools in Ontario built in the 1950s and 1960s (or earlier) with too many vacant pupil places. It appears 2012-13 and beyond are finally the time when Ontario's Ministry of Education will live up to its often-issued threat to cut declining enrolment grants. These grants have allowed many school boards to postpone the drastic changes they needed to make in order to right-size the facilities in their districts. They're going away.
Which means (with credit to former Thames Valley DSB director of education John Thorpe) there are difficult choices to make. There will increasingly be two choices: Fund the buildings you have today to keep as many of them open as possible with nothing left over to modernize them. Or you decide to spend less on your bricks and mortar-- close, consolidate, renovate, bring as many facilities up to modern standards as possible to run them as efficiently as possible and spend all those savings on programs.
To those who would advocate the status quo, which will it be?

3 comments:

Andrew Campbell said...

I understand and agree with most, but have yet to hear a reasonable explanation to the situation TDSB is in, where they are unde rcapacity now, but the MOF has predicted enrolment growth for the next 15 years leading to capacity. I don't know how many other boards are in the same position, but it seems pretty short sighted to force schools to close and land to be sold, only to find it is needed in 10 years. How does the system address that?

Education Reporter said...

Andrew:

Many boards use the same demographers as the province does to complete long-term projections. The key is recogning that population growth won't equal the same student-aged growth as at any previous point in history. There's a balance to be found between current decline and where student populations will be once the baby boom echo's echo start attending school.

Outside of high-immigration and in-migration areas, some boards are alredy seeing the start of that rebound. It won't be as big though, which means a rationalization of space is still needed.

Hugo

Andrew Campbell said...

Hugo-

My understanding, from a presentation made by a TDSB Trustee, is that the Min of Finance has projected TDSB enrolment will increase for the next 15 years and that it's currently at the lowest point it will be. Given that, they are saying it is short sighted to close schools and sell off buildings they may well need in the next 5-10 years. They are apparently not allowed to lease out the buildings.

I assume that much of this growth is via immigration and so I'm wondering if it isn't also a factor in other urban areas that also receive a lot of immigrants (e.g. Ottawa)